“I’ve sometimes felt I became a reader for the wrong reasons,” says Dwight Garner. “People go on about ideas. Ideas are fine—but give me the texture of a life, give me the wriggling details.” He sympathizes with Elizabeth Hardwick, “who got caught up in the ‘drama of consumption’ in Mary McCarthy’s novels. What were her characters going to eat or do next?” He’s felt in league with Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, who said about the world, “I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it,” and with Eve Babitz, who loved Colette’s fiction because she’s one of those writers “you open up anywhere and brush up on what to do.” These are the bits that have stayed seared in his memory, and the ones he turned to when compiling Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany, out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“Food in fiction, that ‘drama of consumption,’ has always made me turn the pages more eagerly,” says Garner. “One reason I was a big, husky kid—I still am—is that I ate while I read. Now that every novel is about food, I find that I relish the outliers, the books that have some malevolent intelligence, the ones that tweak the dark side of our appetites.” Here, Garner recommends three delicious takes on appetites gone wrong.
Car, by Harry Crews
“America was a V-8 country, gas-driven and water-cooled,” Harry Crews writes in Car, his rough satirical diamond from 1972. The novel is about a young fellow named Herman Mack, who, for reasons a panel of philosophers, gods, and kings could not entirely divine, commits to eating an entire Ford Maverick, over several months, onstage. Crews revels in the circus-like atmosphere; he revels, too, in the details of Herman’s painful coprophagic cycle. Pauline Kael once compressed the charm of movies into a book title: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s tempting to compress Car down to two lines on page 53: “Car, he thought, car car car car car car car … Ass, he thought, ass ass ass ass ass ass ass ass.” Yet Crews’s vision is expansive and uniquely American. He’s not subtle, but he’s a sacred, subversive monster.
American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
Patrick Bateman, the 26-year-old investment banker/serial killer in Ellis’s novel, has become, thanks to Mary Harron’s 2000 film version (and Christian Bale’s sly performance), a beloved national gargoyle. The novel seems to get better, riper, every year. It’s a blood-specked satire of materialism during the Wall Street boom of the 1980s, and nowhere is it better than on the vulgar pretentions of foodies, of gonzo chefs and their feckless clientele. By the end of the novel, Bateman is putting away dishes such as eagle carpaccio, pork loin in lime jello, and raw-chicken gazpacho, and he creates a chocolate-covered urinal cake. The jokes get pretty insidery; in this novel, The Nation prints restaurant reviews. (Navasky on Le Cirque! If only.) Bateman is a narcissist, Ellis writes, watching his own reflection in a pool of blood. He’s likely chewing a wedge of red-snapper pizza while he feasts his eyes.
The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston
I suppose we should talk about the monkey scene in Kingston’s memoir. “Do you know what people in China eat when they have the money?” her mother asks. “They buy into a monkey feast. The eaters sit around a thick wood table with a hole in the middle. Boys bring in the monkey at the end of a pole. Its neck is in a collar at the end of the pole, and it is screaming. Its hands are tied behind it. They clamp the monkey into the table; the whole table fits like another collar around its neck. Using a surgeon’s saw, the cooks cut a clean line in a circle at the top of its head. To loosen the bone, they tap with a tiny hammer and wedge here and there with a silver pick. Then an old woman reaches out her hand to the monkey’s face and up to its scalp, where she tufts some hairs and lifts off the lid of the skull. The eaters spoon out the brains.” This is the scene in The Woman Warrior, an incisive memoir that sticks uneasily with most of its readers. Me? I like the way the author’s mother thrives because of her ability to eat anything. We read, “Another big eater was Chou Yi-han of Changchow, who fried a ghost. It was a meaty stick when he cut it up and cooked it. Before that it had been a woman out at night.” Patrick Bateman is smiling somewhere.